Thursday, 9 June 2016

2016 Season: Week 5 - the feel good factor

Young Michael O'Neil has pestered the life out of me for some time to dedicate a post on my worldly blog to him, as Trainee Stud Manager at Ayr Standardbreds and now self-appointed Racing Manager at the same establishment.

I'm usually too busy condemning the governing body for yet another balls-up, or banging on about one of my own horses...and poor Michael slipped down my writing agenda.

However, it gives me great delight to be sitting here typing this story of perseverance, belief, passion and above all else, team work.  And Michael O'Neil is right at the heart of the story.

When Smarty and I walked into the track last Friday night, I had spotted an instantly-recognisable horse warming up, even with a driver change to throw us off the scent: Ayr Escape.  The way in which he carries himself distinguishes him from other horses; he is as good-looking a pacer as you could wish to find in the British Isles, and he has a knack for always landing on the right stride for photos.  The ultimate poser.

Smarty had turned to me and said, "I think he'll win tonight".  And we left it at that.

As I stood with Hugh O'Neil Jnr watching his youngest son, Michael, tack the horse up before his race, I relayed this story, only omitting Smarty's final contribution so as not to jinx the horse.  I am somewhat superstitious at the best of times.

I stood in the bar to watch the beginning of the race, which saw Escape lead out in the hands of catch driver William Greenhorn.  After half a mile he was still sitting in front comfortably and I dashed outside to stand by the rail to cheer him home.  It was here that I may have over-exuberantly shoved Caroline (Kennedy), Michael's aunt, in the same manner in which I shoved Michael the day Star won last season.  I don't know my own strength.  Sorry Caroline!

I'd agreed to stand at the stable bend with Michael but had been distracted by a conversation about French trotters, although in light of my accidental-punching it may have been for the best that I was stood at the opposite end of the track.

Ayr Escape won easily, and as we all piled on to the track to meet Escape, Wull and Michael in the winner's circle, we could see how much the win meant to Michael who was slightly overcome with emotion (been there done that, cried my eyes out last September).  In 63 starts spanning across five years, Escape has been denied victory.  The reason for this isn't absolute, however he was a classic example of a horse punished under an archaic and unfair handicap system whereby he rose through the system despite not winning; his place money, of which he picked up plenty, saw him handicapped more harshly.  Where then was the incentive for the O'Neil family to continue training and racing the horse, a previous 4YO SHRC Champion?

And yet, continue to train and race him they did.  At first it appeared to be to give their eldest son, Hughie, a chance to drive.  Now, it seems, it is to give their youngest son, Michael, a chance to train.  Week after week, Escape returned to the track to never put a foot wrong, only to be beaten.  Many joked about the horse and the driver, and although the driver did not get his moment in the limelight this time, the horse certainly did and the O'Neils will have had the last laugh.

I walked off the track with Michael and the horse, down behind the buildings and right to the bottom of the area where the horseboxes were parked.  I lost count of the number of people who congratulated Michael, including drivers who had been beaten by the horse in that very race.  As I said in my Harnesslink report, it was a cold heart that wasn't touched by the events of Friday night.  It was the ultimate feel good factor which the sport, not only in Scotland, needed.  The response on social media to the victory was overwhelming across the length and breadth of the UK - that is testament in itself to how well thought of the O'Neils are.  And let's face it, we're all suckers for a tale of the victorious underdog.

I reflected on the evening with Smarty as we drove home, and we agreed that it was the best we had felt leaving a race meeting for a long time.  The victory wasn't attributable to one individual, but to a whole family who have persevered in the face of defeat, a family whose roots are buried deep in the heart of harness racing in the UK.  If that doesn't make you feel good, nothing will.

So here's to Ayr Escape, and Michael O'Neil; to Hugh and Elizabeth O'Neil, Ryan O'Neil, Hughie O'Neil and Kareen New, and of course to the pilot on the night, William Greenhorn, with one of the most satisfying catch drives of the century.  Oh, and to Donkey.  I was assured that Donkey played a massive part in training Escape mentally for the task.

Kareen New photo
Bill Cardno photo
Bill Cardno photo - L-R George Carson, William Greenhorn, myself, Michael O'Neil, Kareen New, Elizabeth O'Neil, Hughie O'Neil, Joe Ritchie, Karen Kennedy & Caroline Kennedy  
Congratulating the one half of 'Big Burd & Boots' known as Boots - Kareen New photo
 A great production by Kareen New:

And also a link to my report of the full meeting on Harnesslink -

I missed Wolverhampton due to commitments at home so cannot fairly provide an opinion on the event of the individual races.  I will also be giving Monmouth a miss but will be at Corbiewood tomorrow night with my two year old, Crosshill Ace, and also Appleby on Sunday with Cassius Clay and Young Stephen.

Catch you all next week,

#1 Groom

P.s. the goat has been left unharmed this week, although those 'horseporn' videos are STILL doing the rounds on social media.  Stop it, it's weird.

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